Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): Sinning against an infinite God is an infinite offense which deserves infinite punishment


I have often used this argument when doing evangelism to illustrate the immense gravity of sin and the awful punishment due. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to discover that the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued the same way almost 8 centuries before:

“The magnitude of the punishment [of sin] matches the magnitude of the sin. Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin—it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen—and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against Him.”

– Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Summa Theologica, Ia2ae. 87, 4

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) on God’s omnipotence and inability to sin



The excerpt below includes Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) discussion of the question: “can God sin?” At first sight, it might seem that the suggestion that “God cannot sin” amounts to a denial of his omnipotence. However, Thomas argues that sin is a defect, and is therefore inconsistent with the idea of God as a perfect Being. God cannot sin, because it is not in his nature to be deficient:

“It is commonly said that God is almighty. Yet it seems difficult to understand the reason for this, on account of the doubt about what is meant when it is said that ‘God can do everything’… If it is said that God is omnipotent because he can do everything possible to his power, the understanding of omnipotence is circular, doing nothing more than saying that God is omnipotent because he can do everything that he can do… To sin is to fall short of a perfect action. Hence to be able to sin is to be able to be deficient in relation to an action, which cannot be reconciled with omnipotence. It is because God is omnipotent that he cannot sin… Anything that implies a contradiction does not relate to the omnipotence of God.”

– Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 25, aa. 3-4

Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563) on God foreseeing the fall of Adam, and the felix culpa


The logic of the Reformed doctrine of election left theologians with the obligation to show that God did not cause the fall. Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563) states below the standard position that God foresaw humanity’s fall in Adam but did not cause it to occur. Adam had been created good but fell into sin of his own accord. Hence humanity has only itself – not God – to blame for its predicament.

Musculus was professor of theology at Bern, Switzerland, from 1559 until his death, having previously been converted to the Reformation faith through reading Luther and spending time in both Augsburg and Strasbourg. This excerpt is from his Loci communes sacrae theologiae:

“God’s ways are not like men’s ways, so that it must be thought that it happened to im, as it usually comes to us every day: our plans and acts promptly fall out far otherwise than we had intended. He created man in His image, upright and unimpaired. Who [is] so senseless as to say that He had not foreseen what would happen to man by the serpent’s persuasion? All therefore generally agree, and rightly, in this, that Adam’s sin had been foreseen and foreknown from eternity. Thus the lapse of the human race did not so occur as to be beyond the mind and intention of the Creator: which means that He is a sham creator in His work, as though the thing happened otherwise than He resolved…

[I]t is I think pretty clear that God refused to establish man’s felicity and salvation upon his first state and constitution such as it was, but established it on his (man’s) restoration predestined in Christ the Son, and He so arranged, that he should be redeemed and preserved neither by his knowledge of Himself (whence He even forbade him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) nor by the worthiness and merits of his own righteousness, but by the sole grace and mercy of his free election, when otherwise ready to perish, by the intervention of His Son. The universal fall of the human race served to illustrate this grace of election. By the fall, before he had acquired any offspring, Adam fell into sin; and the result is that no mortal can be saved except by God’s mercy. In the next place also the wretchedness, corruption and perdition, which overtaking this lapse of our first parents now holds the whole human race, renders the power and might of divine providence much more splendid, while through Christ we are more happily restored after the fall than we had been when created, before we fell: just as on the day of resurrection, when we shall be raised from the dust of the earth and the corruptible shall put on incorruption and the mortal immortality, the might of God’s power will be declared much more gloriously, than if we were living for ever in this life devoid of corruption and death.”

– Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563), Loci communes sacrae theologiae, p. 620-621

Musculus’ assertion that God having permitted the fall means that “we are more happily restored after the fall than we had been when created”, is no novelty of the 16th century. This idea is apprehended in the Latin phrase felix culpa, which can more or less be translated as “fortunate fall”. It can be traced back to Augustine (354-430), who in his Enchridion, viii, said  “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” (in Latin: Melius enim iudicavit de malis benefacere, quam mala nulla esse permittere). Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397) also spoke of the fortunate ruin of Adam in the Garden of Eden in that his sin brought more good to humanity (i.e. the grace of God in Christ, and the new creation) than if he had stayed perfectly innocent. This was picked up in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who in his Summa Theologica, III, 3, ad 3, said “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom”, which underlines the causal relation between original sin and the Christ our Redeemer’s Incarnation.

Furthermore, we see in the Bible itself that in a number of places, though not a “fall”, God employed evil (which He himself did not cause, but were caused by men) for the greater good, such as, to give but two examples, with Joseph in Genesis, and most staggeringly of all, the pernicious murder of Christ on the cross, which was for the redemption of the world.

Peter Lombard (1096-1164) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) on the continuity between circumcision and baptism


Peter Lombard (1096-1164) was a medieval scholastic theologian, one of the most prominent figures of the Middle Ages, and famous for his Four Books of Sentences (Libri Quatuor Sententiarum), which became the standard textbook of theology at the medieval universities. From the 1220s until the 16th century, no work of Christian literature, except for the Bible itself, was commented upon more frequently. All the major medieval thinkers, from Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas to William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, were influenced by it. Even the young Martin Luther still wrote glosses on the Sentences, and John Calvin quoted from it over 100 times in his Institutes. Every theologian read it, and many wrote commentaries on it. So we can see that it is a very significant text in the history of theology. Here Lombard writes on the continuity between circumcision and baptism. Before reading this however, this topic has also been discussed in two previous posts, which can be accessed here:

Jake Griesel on the biblical rationale behind infant baptism:

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583) on infant baptism and circumcision:

But back to Peter Lombard. This comes from his Sentences, Book IV, chapters 7-8:


Nevertheless there was among them a certain sacrament, namely, circumcision, conferring the same remedy against sin which baptism now does.

Thus Augustine says: ‘From the time that circumcision was instituted among the people of God it was ‘a seal of the righteousness of faith’ and availed for old and young for the purging of original and former sin; just as baptism began to avail for the restoration of man from the time it was instituted.

Again Bede says: ‘Circumcision in the law effected the same means of healthful cure against the wound of original sin which baptism customarily effects in the time of revealed grace, with the exception that they were not able yet to enter the doorway of the Kingdom of Heaven. However, after death, consoled in the bosom of Abraham in blessed rest, they waited with the joyful hope for the beginning of celestial peace.’

In these words it is clearly conveyed that through circumcision, from the time of its institution, the remission of original and actual sin for young and old was offered by God, just as now it is given in baptism.


… From this Gregory concludes: ‘What the water of baptism has the power to do among us was done among the ancients in various ways: for children by faith alone, for adults by the virtue of sacrifice, and for those who sprang from the descendants of Abraham by the mystery of circumcision.’

To be sure, there is much in the passage cited that Reformed Christians would reject (ex opere operato sacramental efficacy, the nature of sin and grace, limbus patrum, etc.) and yet clearly this passage shows that neither Calvin nor Zwingli had invented the idea that there is significant continuity between the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision and the New Testament sacrament of Baptism. Lombard’s Sentences had already recognized such continuity much earlier in the history of Christian dogma (as had Augustine, Bede the Venerable, and Gregory the Great).

The Reformed view that there is, indeed, significant continuity between circumcision and Baptism was not a theological novum when it was articulated by Calvin and the Reformed Scholastics. Rather, it reveals how deeply they were drinking from the wells of historic Christian theology, ancient and medieval.


Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) shows the same continuity. These are from Summa Theologica, Part 3, Question 62, Article 6 and Question 66, Article 2 respectively:

“Further, Bede says in a homily on the Circumcision: ‘Under the Law circumcision provided the same health-giving balm against the wound of original sin, as baptism in the time of revealed grace.’ But Baptism confers grace now. Therefore circumcision conferred grace; and in like manner, the other sacraments of the Law; for just as Baptism is the door of the sacraments of the New Law, so was circumcision the door of the sacraments of the Old Law: hence the Apostle says (Galatians 5:3): ‘I testify to every man circumcising himself, that he is a debtor to the whole law.’”

Note that Thomas here cites the same passage in Bede that Peter Lombard cites in his Sentences.

“Further, Baptism  is a necessary sacrament, as stated above: wherefore, seemingly, it must have been binding on man as soon as it was instituted. But before Christ’s Passion men were not bound to be baptized: for Circumcision was still in force, which was supplanted by Baptism. Therefore it seems that Baptism was not instituted before Christ’s Passion.”

Happiness as the end of man: Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and the Beatific vision



1. Why Are We Here?

This life often does not make sense to us. It can seem like a wildly fun ride one moment, and a terrifying roller coaster the next. Undeserving people often seem to have it easy, while “the really good ones” can get thrown to the ground over and over again.

So what gives? I think that a lot of our issues derive from misguided expectations. We (rightly) desire happiness, and it seems like life is kind of pointless if we can’t get it. It’s easy enough for a Christian to say, “Oh but we have heaven to look forward to!”, but in the face of real suffering, especially when it seems pointless, that can ring rather hollow. As has often been pointed out, suffering can prepare us for something better.

But what is this “something better”?

For the answer to this question, we can learn from Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), whose answer was (ultimate) happiness.


2. Thomas Aquinas: “Treatise on Happiness”

Thomas’ magnum opus, Summa Theologica, has three major sections: (1) God and his Creatures, (2) Man’s Happiness in General and Particular Virtues & Vices, and (3) Jesus Christ (who can account for 1 and 2). Sections I-II, q. 1-5 are known collectively as The Treatise on Happiness. Here Thomas deals with the subject of what mankind is “here for.” After this, Thomas considers things in which man’s happiness consists. This will be briefly summarized below.

2.1. Acting Toward “Ends”

“Now the end is the principle in human operations, as the Philosopher states. Therefore it belongs to man to do everything for an end.”  Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)


All people are moved by their will toward some goal. If this were not true, then we would not do one thing rather than another. We could not make choices if we had no means of doing so, nor any standard by which to know which choices to make.

Our wills have an “appetite” for goodness. Whenever we choose to do something, we are always doing so for some good that our mind apprehends. Even if what we do is a bad thing, we still do it for some good that we wish to obtain (e.g. stealing to obtain money). That’s just how the will is, I don’t think any elaboration is necessary here.

“According as their end is worthy of blame or praise so are our deeds worthy of blame or praise.” – Augustine (354–430), De Mor. Eccl. et Manich. ii, 13


Our acts are considered human acts (not just acts of humans – like sleeping or breathing), when they proceed from a deliberate will. The principle of human acts is the end. This is to say that human acts are judged according to their goals. For example, if I drown trying to save a drowning child it is not considered suicide and punished, but rather heroic and rewarded. Thus, whenever we do something we:

  1. have a reason for doing so
  2. that reason is for some good (N.B. – not necessarily a moral good)
  3. our acts are judged based on the reason for doing them (their end)

2.2. An Ultimate “End”

If we try to trace out the good our wills seek, we must realize that it is not possible to proceed indefinitely in the matter of ends. If there were no last end (intent), nothing would be desired, nor would any action have its goal, nor would we ever come to see an act as truly finished.

This is exemplified well when toddlers keep asking why something is the case. At some point you just have to say “because.” It cannot go on ad infinitum, or there would be no reason at all.

Further, this ultimate end must be one. The will cannot be directed to many things at the same time if all of them are ultimate. Chaos would ensue, decisions could not be made. It would be intolerable, for our will’s appetite would never really be satisfied. It may seem like this is the case anyway, but keep reading – this is actually part of the evidence for Thomas’ ultimate conclusion.

Finally, the ultimate good presupposes intermediate goods. Our wills can tend toward these as well, for we desire all under the aspect of good even if it is not the perfect good, and therefore it follows that one need not always be thinking of the last end.

2.3. Identifying the Ultimate End

“All men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.” – Augustine (354–430), De Trin. xiii, 3


It might not seem like everyone could agree on an ultimate end. Different people have different desires. However, they all desire those different things for the same reason – the thing in which the last end is realized. In other words – everyone wants what they want because it is good, and possessing good things makes us happy.

Thomas notes that Aristotle (384–322 BC) says, “man’s ultimate happiness consists in his most perfect contemplation.” (Ethic. x) But above this happiness there is still another, which we look forward to in the future. This is perfect happiness, what Thomas calls Beatitude, or the Beatific vision. It is the ultimate perfection of our intellect and will – full knowledge and full goodness, leaving behind no remainder for these appetites to “hunger” for. All other things that people might consider as their ultimate end turn out to be means they use to attempt to attain this true end. Let us then look at these “other things” and finally at the Beatific vision.

External Goods

For example – what about external goods?

  • Wealth? No. Our ultimate happiness cannot consist in material wealth because money is only sought for the sake of acquiring something else,
  • Honour? No. Honour is given to a person because of some excellence that is in the person honoured. Being excellent certainly makes one happy, but if such an excellence is already possessed, honour does not add to it.
  • Fame? No. Man’s happiness cannot consist in human fame or glory because in order to attain it, others must know of that which would give one fame. Because knowledge often fails, human glory is frequently deceptive.  As Boethius (c. 480–524) puts it, “Many owe their renown to the lying reports spread among the people. Can anything be more shameful?” (De Consol, iii).
  • Power? No. It is impossible for ultimate happiness to consist in power because power can be used for both good and evil, and evil, by definition, cannot be the ultimate good.

Happiness is man’s supreme good, it is incompatible with any evil, but all the above (and others alleged ultimate goods) can be found both in good and in evil people. Further, ultimate happiness cannot lack any needful good, but after acquiring any one of the foregoing, one may still lack many goods that are necessary to him. Furthermore, one could lose wealth, honour, fame and power – which causes fear of loss. Thus none can bring ultimate happiness.

Bodily Goods

Perhaps once external goods are eliminated as being truly ultimate, personal goods such as the body itself may be considered. After all, the external goods are mostly means to attaining goods for the body, right?

No, Thomas says this will not do either!

It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in the goods of the body, because while humans surpasses all other animals in regard to happiness, in bodily goods we are surpassed by many animals. This is not usually considered a problem, for things differ in what is good for them depending on what they are. It would not be considered a good, for example, for a human to wallow in the mud, but it is a good for a pig.

Now, humans are composed of soul and body (some would argue for a trichotomy of body, soul and spirit, which is another discussion altogether, but this dichotomy of soul and body will suffice ad hoc). While the body depends on the soul, the soul does not depend on the body. Thus, the soul has a primacy for us that it does not for animals, which cease to exist upon death. Because bodily delights require a body, and the body is not the highest principle of a human person, no goods for the body can be the human being’s ultimate good.

The Good of the Soul

It might seem like we have now reached the end of our quest for the ultimate end. If not in our own soul, then where? Thomas does not think so, though, because the soul is made for other things. We attain happiness through our souls, but not because of them (otherwise simply being a human would be perfect happiness, as being human requires having a soul). Thus Thomas concludes that, ”happiness is something belonging to the soul; but that which constitutes happiness is something outside the soul.”

Uncreated Goodness

If nothing external, nor internal, to us can be the ultimate good that will make us ultimately happy, then what is left? Those two categories cover all of creation! It must not, then, be something that is created.

Here is Thomas’ step-by-step explanation:

  1. Happiness is the perfect good, which would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired.
  2. Now the object of the will, i.e. of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true.
  3. Hence it is evident that naught can satisfy man’s will, save the universal good.
  4. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. God is goodness per se.
  5. Therefore, God alone can satisfy the will of man.

3. The Ultimate End: Happiness in God

God alone constitutes man’s happiness. God is the ultimate end of man and, indeed, of all other things. Eternal life is said to be the last end, as is clear from John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God.”

Because humans have the two appetites of the intellect and will – truth and goodness – God, who alone is infinite truth and goodness, alone can perfectly satisfy man’s intellect and will. Therefore, if we are to attain our last end and ultimate happiness, we must know and love God, thereby satisfying both the intellect and the will.

But love is the desiring of good as well as unity with the good sought. Man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek, and while on earth we can only attain the finite goods offered to us by creation (one reason why idolatry is so tempting – cf. Romans 1:18-23). But “When He shall appear, we shall be like to Him; and we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2). Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence – which we will get in heaven. And this is the Beatific vision.

Thus can Thomas conclude:

“Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man’s happiness consists.” – Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

Augustine (354–430) stated it so memorably in his Confessions, I.i:

“Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

And lest we forget, the answer was in the Bible all the time:

“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) on simultaneous love and hate of the sinner


In an earlier post on Stephen Charnock (1628-1680), something of the simultaneous love and wrath of God toward the yet-unbelieving elect was said:

We now turn to a more anthropological perspective: our own simultaneous love and hate of the sinner.

This idea of loving and hating a person at the same time but in different respects is very old in church history, at least going back to Augustine. Here’s the same idea in Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274):

“It is our duty to hate, in the sinner, his being a sinner, and to love in him, his being a man capable of bliss. And this is to love him truly, out of charity, for God’s sake.”

– Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6

The slogan “love the sinner but hate the sin”, popularized by the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), is a distortion of the ancient truth that we are to both love the sinner and hate the sinner at the same time but in different respects.